Weekly Preaching: May 9, 2021

May 5th, 2021

What is May 9? The Sixth Sunday of Easter? Mother's Day? Yes. I've heard clergy fight, ignore, or even diss Mother's Day, and I've listened to clergy extol the wonder of Moms. In my book reflecting on the ongoing task of preaching (The Beauty of the Word), I suggest that we take into account people with dysfunctional relationships with mom, and syrupy sweet relationships too, but naming both and directing the emotions in that to Christ – and even to his mother, Mary. I like, on Mother's Day, to launch into a little reflective reverie on her, bearing him in her womb, hearing his first cry, teaching him to walk, reciting Psalms, feeding and nursing him to health, watching him walk away to an unknown life of itinerant preaching, hearing rumors of amazements but also mounting conflict and danger, and then watching him suffer and die. No big moral takeaway. Noting the beauty of Jesus' story.

 

Acts 10:44-48 (as we still bear the anomaly of a New Testament book containing the lectionary's Old Testament readings!) has the hopeful phrase, "even on the Gentiles." Psalm 98 is … Easter-ish? A new song, God has done marvelous things. I'd linger over "his right hand and his holy arm getting him victory." Jesus' hands, extended to touch a leper, heal the sick, embrace the lonely, a gesture in teaching, lifted in prayer, then pierced by nails, his arm extended around people and then across the crossbeam as he was crucified. This is "in the sight of the nations" – or was it at their hands? Or ours?

 

The idea of this "new song" reminds me of a sermon a very young Martin Luther King, Jr. preached at his dad's Ebenezer Baptist Church, entitled "How the Christian Overcomes Evil." It was punctuated with an illustration from mythology. The sirens lured sailors onto the rocks and devastating shipwreck. Two managed to navigate those waters safely. Ulysses stuffed wax into his rowers' ears and strapped himself to the mast of the ship. But that's not the Christian's way. We can't just shut out the world or cling to some notion of Bible authority. No, we look to Orpheus, who, as the sirens began to sing, pulled out his lyre and played a more beautiful tune, so the rowers listened to him and did not notice the sirens. 

 

I would commend to you Wendy Farley's new, marvelous book, Beguiled by Beauty, in which she weighs the way beauty, noticing it, letting it come into play in the mundane realities of a busy life still with some moments of meditation and prayer, informs everything from faith to social justice. {My recent "Maybe I'm Amazed" podcast convo with her was just terrific!}   1 John 5:1-6. Interesting how this epistle frames things: God and Christ as parent and child; if you love one, you love both. If you love me, you love my child – thinking of Christ, but then all the children of God! The answer to the question, How will they know we are Christian? isn't answered as simply as the hymn "They will know we are Christians by our love," but "that we love the children of God." See the difference?

 

Love is commanded. It doesn't just happen – or not happen. Paul Victor Furnish (in The Love Commandment in the New Testament): "Christian love isn't a heat-seeking missile that directs itself to something inherently attractive, but perhaps especially to the unlovely and those who see themselves as unlovable." The love Jesus talks about is the love Jesus embodied, and if we approximate this love, we approximate all he was about.

 

How do we love God? It seems different from love for other people, or my child or spouse or friend, as it's not a feeling or even a doing-for, but obeying God's commandments. Commandments aren't this external code I should adhere to to stay out of trouble, feel pious, or judge others. It's how I enact my love. Our earthly relationships bear a similar dynamic, don't they? If I love my wife, I follow the commandment to be faithful, help with the dishes, listen, etc. If the love is genuine and robust, this commandment fulfillment isn't burdensome but a great joy – as illustrated in Psalm 19.

 

John 15:9-17. When we ponder the Last Supper, we reflect on the meal, the foot washing, and Jesus' words of hope about mansions in heaven or sending the Advocate. Jesus expends a lot of his air time talking about commandments. When he said, "If you keep my commandments, you abide in my love," what did the disciples infer that he meant? Jesus' commandments would have been identical to the Torah but with immense depth. No adultery? No lust. No killing? No anger. Loving your enemy. Giving up your coat. Finding the lost sheep. Welcome the prodigal home. Not being smug like the smug. Taking up a cross. Losing your life. I think a sermon could poke around in all of these and more. 

 

Not vague love or generalized goodness or niceness. Something more radical, startling, full-bodied. As Kavin Rowe put it, "Human life is just too hard to have a boring Christianity." Jesus isn't wagging a finger, urging us to behave ourselves. It's "that your joy may be complete." The Greek, plerothe, means full, overflowing. It's not Do this, and you'll be swimmingly happy, or it will be great fun. Joy is richer, deeper, sustainable during the darkest days, undefeatable by circumstance. If it feels like pressure to feel this way, we've missed the point. It's a gift. The fruit of the Spirit (echoed in Jesus' words here!)? Love, and there it is: Joy. A gift you discover has happened in you when you were fixated on something else – or rather, on someone else, not yourself, but Jesus. Our people are mostly joyless, as are we clergy. Perhaps the recovery of joy as a thing, in preaching, in church life, is the secret to Christianity not being so dull.

Jesus calls them friends. I'll close with this rumination, excerpted from my new book on the theology of our hymns, on what friendship with Jesus looks like and is about:

 

At the Last Supper, Jesus tells the disciples, "No longer do I call you servants… but I have called you friends" (John 15:15a). Up to this moment, Jesus has given them good cause to think of him as Lord, God, Word incarnate, Light of the World, Savior. This utterly magnificent, inspiring, divine one invites them to see him as a friend. What could he mean?

 

For us, a "friend" might be someone you have fun with, someone who likes what you like, someone like you, someone easy to be around. But such friendships can be thin. We hold back from going very deep, not wanting to risk disagreement. So we stick to chatter about food, ballgames, lifestyle nuggets. Or we find our way into little enclaves of people who agree with us, echo chambers for our biases, feeding our narcissism. Isn't it true that if you only hang around with people like you, you become ignorant and arrogant?

 

Ancient philosophers like Socrates defined "friend" as someone who helps you to become good and wise. Aristotle wrote that the opposite of a friend is a flatterer. From St. Augustine to Søren Kierkegaard, Christian thinkers thought of friends as those who help you love God and whom you help to love God. Paul Wadell reminds us that "Friendship is the crucible of the moral life." You become the people you befriend. It's formative. If Jesus is your friend, you become like him, touching untouchables, seeing through fake religiosity, prayerful, generous, ready to lose everything to do the will of your Father. The secret to young Methodism's vitality was that John Wesley wisely insisted that people get organized into small groups to share in the quest for holiness. We need friends who care about and dare to cultivate wisdom, and holiness, to hold one another accountable for progress toward Jesus, our shared friend. Jesus explained why he would be calling the disciples friends: "For all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you" (John 15:15b). Friends share God's knowledge. They are learners, egging one another on to more expansive understandings of the heart of God. 

 

Aelred of Rievaulx, a twelfth-century Cistercian, said to his friend Ivo, "Here we are, you and I, and I hope a third, Christ, is in our midst." What would it be like if Christ, the third, were in your friendships? Whom are we called to befriend, if Jesus, befriender of a scandalously diverse grab bag of people, is our friend? G.K. Chesterton wryly declared that St. Francis liked everybody, but especially those others disliked him for liking. Sounds like a friend of Jesus. When Jesus is our friend, we celebrate differences with friends. Do you disagree? Instead of drifting away, we friends of Jesus labor toward reconciliation, knowing Jesus didn't run off when we were difficult or thought wrong or were less than faithful. Martin Luther King's insight, "Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend," makes me wonder how many friends I've missed out on.

 

What are the habits of friendship? They eat together. We dine with Jesus at the Lord's Supper, and hopefully, at all our meals with friends. We dare to be vulnerable. Brené Brown has drawn quite a following by simply reminding us that friendship never happens without the courageous risk of vulnerability, candor, sharing. "What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer," and what a privilege to carry everything to a friend down here over dinner. Jesus "knows our every weakness" (echoing Heb. 4:15), inspiring us toward friendships here that know weakness and love. Friendship is encouragement. "We should never be discouraged." The tenderest way Jesus, our friend, alleviates our discouragement is when a friend encourages us. And friendship is sacrifice. Jesus, the best friend ever, said, "Greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13) – and then he went out into the night to be arrested, tried and crucified – for us, his friends. What is Lent, if not being drawn into a more profound friendship with Jesus?


This post originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author

James C. Howell

Dr. James C. Howell has been senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church since 2003, and has served read more…
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